The COVID-19 pandemic revealed a great deal about our societies, our collective wellbeing, and how urgent the choices we make now are for our futures. There has been a great deal of discussion – formally and informally – about the value of the arts in our lives, even before the pandemic caused disruption. In 2020, the Australia Council for the Arts and Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage (Aotearoa New Zealand) commissioned a research project to better understand notions of value arising from arts engagement. The resulting report led by Sandra Gattenhof, Donna Hancox and Te Oti Rakena titled Valuing the Arts in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand shares, for individuals and communities, the outcomes resulting from engagement in arts, culture and creativity through the lenses of  wellbeing, public value and social inclusion.

A key finding emerging from this investigation is the demonstrable need to develop impact assessment models and approaches to evaluation of arts, culture and creative engagement that is people-centered, and has flexibility to be shaped by end-user defined outcomes. Using evaluation approaches to understand the value and impact that go beyond the orthodox reporting priorities about audience numbers, subsidy and economic multipliers can, we argue, build a more comprehensive picture of the transformative potentials of arts and culture for individuals and communities. Taking a people-centered approach would ensure impact and change is not only articulated through the goals of funders or delivery organizations but is understood by the people participating in arts and culture.

Donna and I believe that the people-centered approach to evaluation has application to arts education pedagogies, particularly in our assessment practices. Gert Biesta supports this, noting that education is currently “locked into an endless cycle of measurement and competition” and trying to find a way out, or maybe just looking for a way forward is something educators must turn their attention to. The people-centered framing for evaluating outcomes arising from arts and cultural engagement presents opportunities for learning design in arts engagement and provokes us to think about how we might put our learners at the center of assessment, rather than centering the task.

Educational theorist Elliot Eisner in his text The Kind of Schools We Need: Personal Essays (1998) challenged educators to rethink the role of assessment noting that, “assessment is more an aspiration than a concept with a socially confirmed technical meaning” (p.132). Eisner argues for assessment practices to be flexible, complex and more closely aligned with life, a clear call for making assessment people-centered, or in this case learner-centered.  However, Maxine Greene, arts educator and philosopher, noted that “the chief obstacles of any experience lies in the perpetuation of stereotyped, routine and conventional ways of teaching and, that to encourage more progressive pedagogical methods does not mean that a subversion of the preestablished order of knowledge be undertaken”. Taking the challenge from Eisner and Greene we can see current approaches to assessment of engagement are dominated by an increased focus on standardization, league tables, and competitive rankings. Gert Biesta urges arts educators to return assessment practice back to “encountering the doing of art”. Taking such an approach would value-add to the assessment task by maintaining the ‘fidelity of the immediacy of the cultural experience’‘.

What if we reframe assessment from a mere demonstration of content acquisition to an active mode of judgment of value and quality for our learners? What if we expanded the notion of assessment to include the learner’s lived experience and acknowledge that arts engagement and assessment has a subjective dimension? What if we encouraged our learners to respond to our assessment tasks through their prisms of place and connection with community? Taking this approach does not mean that ‘learner-centered’ should be misinterpreted as solely ‘learner-liked’. We don’t have all the answers. But our research has shown us that there is an urgency to reconfigure the articulation of value and impact arising from engagement in arts, culture and creativity. We argue that the same thinking is equally applicable to our assessment practices by returning the focus back to the field of human experience; the direct experience of an art work or art-making, alongside knowledge of the contexts, traditional and/or contemporary which are at play in that making.

 As we move forward in our post-pandemic reality, the impetus to reframe the way we engage in and reflect on our choices is still strong. In the height of the pandemic Arundhati Roy wrote an essay titled The Pandemic is a Portal. In this treatise, Roy implores us to think into our future by saying, “We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers, our smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it”. It seems the time is right for arts educators to jettison the carcasses of imposed assessment prejudice and fight for stronger learner-centered assessment of value and judgment.

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By Sandra Gattenhof, Professor and Director of Research Training,
School of Creative Practice, Queensland University of Technology
Donna Hancox, Professor and Academic Lead Research, School of Creative
Practice, Queensland University of Technology

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First Nations Australian Dancer in smoking ceremony, Australian Performing Arts Market.
Photo credit: Rob McColl